Stars brace up for heavy winds at Augusta Masters

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson and top rivals Rory McIlroy and Jason Day will face brisk winds on a rain-soaked Augusta National layout when the 81st Masters begins on Thursday.

A sign shows play was suspended due to weather during the par three competition at the Masters golf tournament on Wednesday.   -  AP

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson and top rivals Rory McIlroy and Jason Day will face brisk winds on a rain-soaked Augusta National layout when the 81st Masters begins on Thursday. Johnson, having won his past three starts, is favoured but Northern Ireland's second-ranked McIlroy and Australian World No. 3 Day are among the top rivals expected to challenge the long-driving American in the 72-hole showdown.

Severe thunderstorms and heavy downpours forced officials to close the course early on Wednesday, cutting short the final practice sessions for the year's first men's major golf championship at the famed 7,435-yard layout. Storms are predicted to end overnight before gusting breezes of more than 20 mph (32 kph) and cool temperatures move into the area on Thursday and Friday, set to play havoc with the world's greatest shotmakers.

"It's going to be pretty tough - 20-30 mph winds is not what we're used to around here," Day said. "And it is going to be cold, so the ball is not going to be flying very far. Typically, I kind of like those tough conditions. I'm a grinder in that sense. I need to respect it more and not really be too aggressive."

Sixth-ranked American Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open champion, says it will take time to sort out strategy. "It's going to take a good five-six holes, I think, before we really understand what this golf course is going to give us," he said.

Winds also could cause chaos on the lightning-fast and undulating Masters greens, pushing putts off-line to cause misses from five feet and beyond. "It just puts more of a premium on speed putting. I mean, big time," Spieth said. "You don't want to have 5-footers from above the hole when the wind is blowing. They are already as challenging as anywhere here and they become a less than 50-50 chance from five feet with the wind blowing. Because of the speed of the greens and the amount of slope there is, the wind affects the ball that much more."

‘Brutally tough’

Some people relish the difficult conditions, including Aussie Marc Leishman, who shared fourth in the 2013 Masters. "When it's tough, it's just a completely different golf course and it's brutally tough," Leishman said. "I've played in windy conditions all my life. I'm looking forward to the weather the way it's going to be."

Five-time major winner Phil Mickelson, who could become at 46 the oldest winner in Masters history, will rely on experience to cope with tricky conditions. "What I like most about this week is that Thursday and Friday, the weather is going to come in and that's going to magnify the misses for a lot of players," Mickelson said.

"If you're in the right spot, you can take advantage of your short game and salvage a lot of pars, and I hope to rely on that knowledge and skill to keep myself in it heading into the weekend. And if you put it in the wrong spot, you'll end up making bogeys and doubles."

Eighth-ranked American Rickie Fowler says distance off the tee will be vital with wet fairways even if winds can send balls soaring off target. "When it's a light breeze and moving around and gusts come up from different areas, that's when it can get tougher," Fowler said. "The biggest thing in the wind is just hitting the ball solid. You're still going to be trying to push it out there off the tees to potentially get some shorter shots in."

That should give an edge to big hitters like Johnson, in Thursday's final group, and McIlroy, who starts two groups earlier. "It has been quite blustery here the last few years," McIlroy said. "We've experienced those conditions and hopefully I know how to handle them by now."

Four-time major winner McIlroy, trying to complete a career grand slam by winning the green jacket, is wary of wily temptress Augusta National. "Don't take on too much. It's a course that can tempt you into doing a little bit too much," McIlroy said. "It's just a matter of being smart, taking your medicine when you have to and moving on."

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